E-books: Take 2

At the dawn of the new millennium, the future was rising on a promising digital horizon. The Dow Jones, riding the dot-com wave, reached its highest peak. AOL and Time Warner struck up a behemoth billionaire partnership. Eyeing his own craft, horror maestro Stephen King had an idea to usher writers into the brave new century.

It was both revolutionary and risqué, and King’s website said it had a chance to become big publishing’s worst nightmare. In The New York Times, King even likened himself to an anchovy pizza; he was an experimental meal for the masses, and if people liked what they tasted, they might search for more and jumpstart a movement. The big news? E-books were emerging, and King was going to self-publish his work The Plant online. The story—appropriately, about a menacing plant that ravages a publishing house—would come out in serial form, which King would write as long as readers sent him a buck or two after they downloaded each chapter. If readers paid for 75 percent of their downloads, King would finish the story; if all went well, a model would be on the table that could bring higher profits to established authors and offer new writers a chance to be read without having to jump through the publishing world’s hoops.

Throughout the industry, e-books were a growing force of unknown potential. Time Warner dreamed up a digital imprint, iPublish.com, and Random House broke ground with its own, AtRandom. Clunky and limited e-readers arrived on the market. Quickly, though, it became apparent that something was wrong with e-books: iPublish.com and AtRandom closed up shop in late 2001, lesser players filed for bankruptcy, and King quit nurturing his wily Plant to focus on other projects as paying readers tapered off.

Of course, with the debut of Amazon’s Kindle, it’s apparent that digitized content is back for a thriving round two. Writers considering the plunge from page to e-paper are left wondering: Is the groundswell really here to stay this time?

Industry veteran Bob Sacks, president and publisher of Precision Media Group, believes the answer is yes. “E-books are the future—exclamation point—for many reasons,” Sacks says. “There was a point eight years ago in which they started and crashed. That’s not going to happen this time. We’ve passed the point of no return.”


If you’re a literary technophobe, the numbers can be frightening: According to the Association of American Publishers, e-books accounted for $7.3 million in estimated net sales in 2002. In 2005, $43.8 million. In 2007, $67.2 million. That’s a 55.7 percent growth rate since 2002.

“Of course that’s still only accounting for a very small portion of the market,” says association Director of Digital Policy Ed McCoyd. “But you’re seeing more publishers bringing out their front-list titles as both print and electronic editions.” At the 2008 BookExpo America, the industry’s massive trade fair, Amazon.com founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos made a revelation. Since the Kindle e-reader launched in late 2007, books for the device had already managed to snag more than 6 percent of Amazon’s sales. Light, wirelessly connected to a store in the sky and stocked with nearly all New York Times bestsellers—in addition to top newspapers, magazines and blogs—the Kindle is at the forefront of the e-book resurgence.

One reason e-books are finally taking off is superior technology—namely an e-paper display that mimics the printed page. “The idea was just as good eight years ago, but the actual reading experience wasn’t good,” Sacks says. “E-paper is the next huge leap.” He predicts the devices will advance to color displays in a few years, before losing their hard- shell cases and morphing into audio-video capable displays that can be folded or rolled, by about 2015 or 2020. (The Readius, a pocket e-reader with a flexible screen, is set for a United States launch in early 2009.) As Sacks says, “The Kindle is nothing more than the Model T of e-books.”

Sacks and other industry pros say the future of the e-book movement isn’t so much in the hands of publishers as it is readers: They’ll fully embrace e-books when the ideal device debuts, be it from Sony, Amazon or (thus far mum) Apple. As opposed to 2000, experts say the time is finally right: New generations are completely comfortable reading on screen, people are more accustomed to mobile devices, the availability of content is better, and the public is focused on environmental sustainability. After all, “the words aren’t less important if you read them on a screen than on a dead tree,” Sacks says. “Bits and bytes don’t fill up landfills.”

As for the broad publishing world, Jeff Gomez, author of Print is Dead, says the industry is trying to find a balance that works for everyone—readers, writers, agents, retailers and publishers. For some readers, Gomez likens the transition to the movement from vinyl records to CDs and MP3s. Nothing beats vinyl for some people, just like others won’t ever give up printed books. But future generations raised online won’t even understand all the fuss about e-books topping their print counterparts.

When it comes to a digital domination countdown, Gomez says to look around. Everyone is talking about the future, but major changes are happening now, most notably in the media. In the last year alone, The New York Times lost circulation and shrunk its page size. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told The Washington Post that print newspapers and magazines would be completely gone in a decade. Mogul Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, gave it a more optimistic lifespan of at least 20 years.

Andrew Savikas, director of publishing technology at O’Reilly Media, says execs see a future for e-books, but everyone is uncertain how big the market really is. He adds that publishers such as Harlequin have been innovative at delivering short-form book content on mobile devices, and players in the religion genre have been pioneers by creating a model that measures demand for out-of-print titles and digitally produces them when a critical mass has been reached.  

Overall, though, Savikas says many publishers are missing the point. “There’s too much of trying to replicate the print experience electronically,” he says. “That misses the opportunity to take full advantage of what a digital environment offers.” He says it could be as simple as hyperlinking text—and learning to do so automatically—that will make a big difference in giving the content a desirable advantage over traditional forms.

Does all this mean your treasured tomes—and your hopes of getting published old school—will disappear into cyberspace? Well, not totally. Books and magazines will always be around, Savikas and Sacks say, but they’ll appeal to a more select crowd, becoming a collector’s item.

At Academy Chicago Publishers, a small press that produces about 16 new titles every year, Vice President and Editor Jordan Miller says academics and students will likely substitute e-books for the gigantic volumes they lug around, but he doesn’t know if people will enjoy reading novels in a digital format.

“Things could change,” he says. “God knows they’ve changed enormously in the last decade.”

While Miller acknowledged that he’d sell e-books if they brought in a profit, he says it will be the major publishing houses that will gravitate more toward digital content. Meanwhile, he believes small publishers might keep traditional books alive for future generations.


Terrified? Take a breath. Many industry vets think a digitized future will be a positive thing for writers. In fact, it might just be a great time to be a writer. Gomez says that when his first book came out in the mid-1990s, there was little he could do to drum up interest, and he had to rely on the media to write reviews and his publisher to spend marketing dollars. Nowadays, though, blogs, podcasts and social networking sites are free (or inexpensive) ways to reach a vast audience.

Gomez believes the revolution also will lead to more “wired” authors. He likens the transition to when sound was first introduced in movies; actors who couldn’t adapt got left behind, as will writers who are reluctant to go digital. Overall, Gomez says the system could lead to more exposure—and more writers getting read—and the upsides outweigh any negatives. “Print being dead has nothing to do with either content, stories or ideas being dead,” he says. “Writers—and readers—are very much alive.”

Savikas also views the e-world as a boon for writers. “It’s a tremendous way to no longer have to rely on the hope that your manuscript gets read,” he says. “It’s almost a golden age to be a writer because you have a tremendous opportunity to connect with an audience without needing someone else.” This doesn’t mean, however, that the traditional role of publishers—finding and fostering talented authors—will dissipate. After all, on-demand publishing and user-generated content have been around for years, Savikas says. But Sacks says self-publishing can take on new prominence with e-books—it’s entrepreneurial for new writers to strike out on their own, and if they can get their work to enough people, they have the potential to go viral.

One area where Sacks sees potential change for publishers, though, is the traditional pricing model. He says the next development could be a cable TV-style subscription system in which readers pay for a package offering them newspapers, magazines and books (O’Reilly’s Safari Books Online already has subscriptions for access to its e-cache). Which raises the question: Will writers see more money from e-book sales? For Sacks, it’s the familiar crux. “Most writers, like most actors, are underpaid,” he says. “Those lucky waiters who get noticed get the million dollar contract, while the guy who’s next to him—who’s probably just as good—doesn’t. Some real talent will get noticed and some will go unnoticed.”

While chatter abounds about how infrequently books are read in the modern age, McCoyd says e-books have the potential to grow the industry as younger people, lovers of all things digital, might be more inclined to read for pleasure. And, authors might also see an end to certain royalty dilemmas. As McCoyd points out, writers often believe they are due substantial royalties when publishers distribute many of their books, but instead they receive a financial blow when they’re returned. E-books could allow for simple sales tracking and more accurate numbers.

Paul Aiken, executive director of The Authors Guild, takes a “wait-and-see” stance on whether or not e-books will be beneficial to writers. When it comes to digital media, Aiken warns that often a single player gets early control and winds up taking home the majority of the profits, as with digital music and Apple’s iTunes. He says Amazon is building up its e-book library, and once it’s in place, such dominant systems are hard to dislodge (Amazon did not respond to multiple inquiries for this article). “It’s an interesting but also perilous time in the industry,” Aiken says. “If this goes wrong, it could drain a lot of money from authors and publishers. Whatever promise the new media has could all be taken by one company, leaving authors and publishers to scrap over the money that remains.” Aiken also says the market is already open through print-on-demand services, and while e-media could lower prices for consumers, it’s not likely to generate a huge number of sales for titles that couldn’t find a home in traditional publishing.

Sacks—who identifies himself as the industry’s biggest curmudgeon—is actually optimistic about the future. “I think this is a great opportunity for creativity. It’s truly the democratization of knowledge. It’s what Gutenberg accomplished when he invented the moveable type and the printing press: People could afford to read. It’s the same concept, but a hundred times more powerful.”


So are e-books the future? In the end, it may come down to the opinion of the man on the street, the reader in the moment; you know, the kind who browses bookstores—online or in the real world—on a Sunday morning. At Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati, Ryan Goldschmidt says he thinks e-books probably are the future. “It would make me sad, though, if we got rid of books all together,” he says. Will he read
e-books? “I’ll probably be forced to.”

Perhaps it’s best to consult Stephen King, the man who helped launch an e-book revolution almost a decade ago. Questioned on his website whether his experiment The Plant—which, by the way, made a reported $463,832 in profit—will ever be finished, his reply is ominous, subtle and appropriate in the current debate.  

“Time will tell.”

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